I reached into the pocket that hadn’t seen my hand since October, and found something soft. I pulled out a pair of forgotten fingerless gloves, pure cashmere, purchased from a tourist shop in Scotland (and thus were probably not exactly pure cashmere). They were once aqua blue, my favorite color, but were now tinged with the dirt of the Icelandic horse whose muzzle I’d held in my hands.
I brought the gloves up to my face. They smelled of the horse and sulfur and cold; they smelled like Iceland. I put them on. Every few minutes for the rest of the evening, I covered my face with my not-quite-cashmere hands and breathed deeply. Every time I did so, I was transported back to that place of lava rock and snow, of spongy moss and grass roofs, of alien lights in the sky.
They say the sense of smell is the sense most closely linked with memory (SCIENCE). I believe it. A blast of Aqua Net will transport me back to my junior high winter dance. Diesel fuel is Disneyland (early Autopia cars). Strawberry Kissing Potion. Noxema. Pipe tobacco. And then there’s this fragrance combination I can’t identify—not quite cologne, not quite soap—that makes me fall in love whenever I catch a whiff of it.
I sometimes use this power to create this phenomenon. At the beginning of a big trip, I buy a slice of luxury soap from Lush or an independent crafter. I use it throughout my travels, and save the remnants in a plastic bag. Every now and then (usually when I’m packing and come across it again) I’ll revisit my adventure by breathing in its scent.
The human brain has a tentative hold on memories, and the older you get, the less room it has to store new ones (SCIENCE). Photos help, but they have a funny way of becoming memory itself, which makes me wonder if I'm remembering the actual event or just the picture.
But with the sense of smell, memories materialize differently. They appear as amorphous colors and shapes and impressions. It’s the overall feeling of being there rather than a single moment in time. I find it infinitely more powerful than the 2-D visuals because it conjures emotions; it's like I've been dropped right back into that setting.
I sometimes wonder what the proliferation of social media will do to our memories. On one hand I'm grateful for tools to keep track of where I've been, what I did, and who I did it with. But on the other, I’m already noticing my mind giving up its hold on recollections and handing over the reigns to posts and feeds and services like TimeHop.
But it’s nice to know I have access to my own little version of a time machine.
Albeit a nose-shaped one.